Nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, advanced technologies continue to drive change in every aspect of life, including how we work. Industries around the world can attest to the fact that changes are indeed afoot in the workplace. These changes are often summed up by a buzzword growing in popularity: Industry 4.0. But what exactly is Industry 4.0?
Industry 4.0 refers to the fact that the world finds itself in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution in which cyber-physical systems, automation, and the Internet of Things are combining to create a smart factory environment. The synergies created by these exciting new technologies promise huge gains in industrial efficiency and productivity.
Industry 4.0 is just one term used to describe this new industrial landscape. You might also hear people use other descriptive terms, such as Smart Factory, the Industrial Internet, Smart Automation, Smart Manufacturing, and the Industrial Internet of Things.
Whatever you choose to call it, Industry 4.0 is here and gaining momentum every day. To get a better idea of the depth and breadth of the technological changes taking place, let’s take a look back at how we got here.
What Was the (First) Industrial Revolution?
Much like World War I was known as the Great War until World War II came along, the First Industrial Revolution didn’t have the “First” attached to it until the Second Industrial Revolution occurred. In fact, many people still refer to it as simply the Industrial Revolution, unaware that subsequent revolutions have taken place.
The First Industrial Revolution began in the second half of the eighteenth century in Great Britain. Up until that time, society was primarily agricultural and products were made by hand or with the help of animal power.
For example, textiles were produced by the labor of individual weavers working from home. With the invention of the coal-powered steam engine, however, textiles and other items could be produced more quickly and efficiently with machines.
This process of mechanization led to the creation of the world’s first factories, which would help transform society from agriculture to industry over the course of the next century. This transformation also fueled urbanization, as people moved from farms to cities to work in factories.
When Did the Second Industrial Revolution Occur?
Late in the nineteenth century, new sources of energy sparked a new industrial revolution. Electricity combined with the assembly line to usher in the age of mass production. For example, Henry Ford perfected the moving assembly line to mass produce a new invention that would change the world: the automobile powered by the internal combustion engine.
The emerging modern world was also greatly affected by other inventions, such as the airplane, chemical fertilizers, synthetic fabrics, and new modes of communication like the telegraph and telephone. All of the improvements in transportation, materials, and communication led to great leaps in efficiency and productivity.
Factories got bigger and faster, requiring more workers. Urbanization increased even further. In fact, 40% of the United States population lived in cities by 1900, compared to just 6% a century earlier.
What Changes Did the Third Industrial Revolution Bring?
It would not take an entire century for the next major set of changes to come along. The Third Industrial Revolution traces its roots to the 1950s and the birth of the digital age.
Innovations in electronics, such as transistors, semiconductors, and microprocessors, led to the invention of the first computers. For industry, this meant the eventual development of automation in the form of programmable logic controllers and robots.
Advances in telecommunications and automated production lines allowed industries to expand their reach like never before. Formerly localized industries could now compete in a new global marketplace, meshing together the efforts of workers everywhere into a new worldwide economy.
Where Will the Fourth Industrial Revolution Take Us?
Steam mechanized production. Electricity enabled mass production. Computers spurred automated production. Could anything truly revolutionize industry once again? “Absolutely!” shouted the Internet.
We now live in a “smart” world in which countless devices communicate with other devices via the Internet to make life more convenient in seemingly-endless ways. This infinite web of connected devices even has a name: the Internet of Things.
Industries around the world are combining the Internet of Things with cyber-physical systems and advanced automation technologies to create new smart factory environments. Together, these new technologies hold huge potential for a major leap in productivity and efficiency.
Examples of the new technologies spurring the Fourth Industrial Revolution include: “smart” or connected product identification (barcode, RFID, and vision) and sensors (ultrasonic, photoeye, vacuum, etc.); Ethernet and wireless networking and network security; data analysis and production monitoring software; and manufacturing execution software that automates maintenance tasks via smartphone apps.
What Does a Smart Factory Look Like?
Imagine facilities in which self-driving vehicles communicate with production-line robots to request and deliver necessary parts without human intervention. At the same time, envision connected machines on the production floor communicating with workers to report on a wide variety of information, such as production cycle times, mechanical breakdowns, and predictive maintenance.
Smart robots and connected machines equipped with smart sensors can generate a virtually-unlimited amount of data (often referred to as “big data”) that can be shared with multiple locations via cloud technology. This data can be used not only to monitor real-time production status but also to predict future maintenance needs.
For example, robots can be programmed to continually analyze their productivity and condition, so they can order replacement parts or other maintenance needs before they break down. Sound like science fiction? It’s not. It’s the reality of Industry 4.0, and it will impact industrial efficiency and productivity in ways similar to previous industrial revolutions.
How will Industry 4.0 change the manufacturing floor? Click on the link below to watch a video in which former educator and curriculum expert Bob Sexton provides insight into the changes that Industry 4.0 will bring to industries around the world: